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An Analysis of Health Threats from Oil and Gas Pollution in Two Communities


Executive Summary

California is wine country known for its tourism, agricultural, and entertainment industries, but to the more than 5 million residents living within a mile of oil and gas drilling operations, it’s oil country. Tens of thousands of active wells produced nearly 200 million barrels of oil in 2013, making California one of the largest oil producers in the country. Despite the fact that so many citizens reside close to oil and gas facilities, neither the industry nor state regulatory agencies have adequately investigated the impacts on public health. No extensive studies have been conducted to determine how communities and people living close to oil and gas in California are affected.

In order to begin to understand the impacts of oil and gas development on California communities, this project conducted an investigation of health and air contaminants in two communities living in close proximity to drilling operations – Lost Hills in Kern County, and Upper Ojai in Ventura County. By using a combination of air sampling data and information from health surveys, our assessment aimed to test whether populations living near oil and gas production are being exposed to potentially toxic chemicals associated with the production and transportation of oil and gas. The assessment is based on FLIR camera imaging and air sampling data collected near production facilities, as well as data collected from health surveys. The project also aimed to identify contaminants that are present in the air in two communities in California, and to understand whether the risk of exposure exists.

The results showed that the communities of Upper Ojai in Ventura County, and Lost Hills in Kern County, are being exposed to air contaminants that are typically associated with air emissions from oil and gas development. These contaminants may negatively affect the health of the communities and pose a serious risk of long-term exposure. However, the frequency and number of samples was limited; therefore, the results of this investigation must be viewed as a snapshot of air emissions and a clear warning sign of problems, not as generalizable results.

FLIR (infrared) camera filming revealed visible emissions from several oil and gas facilities near the two communities. Air sampling revealed the presence of 15 compounds known to have negative effects on human health, as well as 11 compounds for which no health data is available. In addition, the air sampling and health surveysshow that residents in both communities report odor issues likely related to the oil and gas development close to their homes. Health surveys conducted in both communities show evidence of health effects that is consistent with contaminants that are associated with oil and gas and which were detected through air sampling, such as nosebleeds, headaches, sinus problems, and skin rashes.

The findings of the assessment provide communities with a snapshot of the types of air contaminants they are being exposed to, the known effects of those contaminants on public health, and the levels of exposure. The data provides a basis for these two communities, and others living in close proximity to oil and gas development, to request further investigation into health impacts associated with oil and gas production, and to push policymakers and regulatory agencies to address their health concerns. Long-term studies into the health impacts of oil and gas operations on California communities will enable regulations to be developed that, if effectively enforced, protect public health and increase understanding of the health impacts that arise from oil and gas development in California.

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